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Dan Ninham
Special to ICT

CHICAGO – The dinosaurs and Haida totems greet visitors in the lobby of the Field Museum before giving way to the wooden floors and surrounding structure that came from Menominee tribal forests in Wisconsin.

Then, just a few steps inside the entrance to the permanent exhibition, “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories,” is a land acknowledgement listing the 15 tribes that called the area home before many were forced from the area.

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“You are on Native land,” a wall-sized greeting reminds visitors.

Summer school groups move through the Field Museum's new permanent exhibition, "Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories," in Chicago after it opened in May 2022. The exhibition was designed with input from 11 Indigenous scholars and museum professionals and more than 130 collaborators representing more than 100 tribes. (Photo by Dan Ninham for ICT)

For Debra Yepa-Pappan, Jemez Pueblo and Korean, who works as the museum’s Native community engagement coordinator, “Native Truths” is not an exhibition about Native people.

“It's an opportunity to learn from us, to listen to the stories, histories and experiences we want to share with you through displays of old and new items, art, poetry, music, video, and photographs,” she told ICT.

“There's a sense of familiarity for Native people who visit. They're able to make personal connections. ‘Native Truths’ is alive, like we are.”

“Native Voices” is new permanent exhibition at the Field Museum, replacing the exhibit that had been included for many years in the Native North America Hall without input from Indigenous people.

To create the new exhibition, an advisory council of 11 Indigenous scholars and museum professionals joined with more than 130 collaborators representing more than 100 tribes, according to the Field Museum website. The galleries are set to rotate over the coming years.

The museum presents the exhibition as “a new approach to telling — and listening to — Native stories.”

Yepa-Pappan, who is also an artist and co-founder/president of the Chicago-based Center for Native Futures arts organization, contributed to the development of an exhibit about Chaco Canyon and is featured in a display on corn and its importance to Pueblo people and others.

Chaco Canyon is an important cultural site in northwestern New Mexico.

“This is one of the rotating story galleries within the exhibition,” said Tammy Pleshek, Brothertown Nation, a public relations specialist for the Native American Exhibition Hall. “There were several collaborators/storytellers involved in the creation of this space about Chaco Canyon, including Debra.”

‘A long time coming’

Yepa-Pappan grew up in Chicago and visited the museum throughout her life, but she said she never before felt connected to the Native hall.

“I didn't feel it represented me or my people,” she said. “There was a disconnection from who we are today. When my daughter was little, I took her to the Field Museum, but avoided the Native hall. I didn't want her to hear other visitors speak about us in past tense. People also would come away with the impression that Native people don't exist anymore.”

Yepa-Pappan got involved as a volunteer with efforts to reimagine the Native hall in 2017, after her husband, artist Chris Pappan, a citizen of the Kaw Nation who is also of Osage and Cheyenne River Lakota descent, exhibited his artwork in a solo exhibition, “Drawing on Tradition,” in the old hall.

The new permanent exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago, "Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories," includes this installation, "We Speak for Ourselves," that highlights diverse Native voices. The permanent exhibition opened in May 2022. (Photo courtesy of Dan Ninham)

At the time, the museum was trying to raise funds to renovate the hall, and Pappan’s exhibition accelerated those efforts, she said.

“His exhibition brought life to the hall by way of his art, music, and a video,” she said. “It showed how problematic the old displays were, how Native people had for too long been misrepresented, but it also showed the potential for what the hall could be, when you collaborate with Native people and give us agency to tell our own stories, to let us change the narrative.”

She joined the museum as community engagement coordinator in 2018 when the renovation project was approved.

The exhibition, she said, “has been a long time coming. It replaces the old outdated exhibition hall where display cases were first installed in the early ‘50s by White anthropologists.”

The Haida totems in the Field Museum in Chicago were first put on display in the 1893 World's Fair. They now greet visitors to the museum, which opened a permanent exhibition, "Native Truths" Our Voices, Our Stories," in May 2022. (Photo by Dan Ninham for ICT)

“Native Truths” draws from Indigenous cultures across North America, with modern items showcased alongside the museum’s historic collections.

The towering, 20-foot totems at the entrance were created by the Haida people of British Columbia and were originally displayed during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, according to the museum’s website.

The wooden floors and structure came from the Menominee, who are known worldwide as leaders in forest management and sustainability initiatives. The new floors were installed by Menominee Tribal Enterprises, which operates a lumber mill on the Menominee reservation, according to an article in the Green Bay Press Gazette.

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The museum also includes a land acknowledgement.

“Although I consider myself a Chicagoan, as a Jemez Pueblo and Korean woman, I acknowledge that I am a guest on this land,” Yepa-Pappan said. “This land was home to Potawatomi people who were forcibly removed from here. Ojibwe, Odawa, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Myaamia, and Peoria people also had relationships with this land and each other. My respects and gratitude go out to all the Native ancestors who once lived here and to my Native brothers and sisters who continue to reside here.”

The Chaco Canyon exhibit explores the lands and the encroachment of extractive industries.

“Chaco Canyon’s buildings, landscape, and the historic and traditional knowledge they hold are under threat from fracking and mining,” the language on the Chaco Canyon exhibit states. “The air and water pollution caused by extractive industries is poisoning people, plants and animals who live in this vital cultural landscape.”

The Field Museum's new permanent exhibition, "Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories," features wooden floors from the Menominee tribal forests in Wisconsin. The exhibition opened in May 2022 with input from more than 100 tribal collaborators. (Photo by Dan Ninham for ICT)

Yepa-Pappan is featured in the exhibit in a display that includes corn, baskets, pottery, grinding stones and other tools. The display includes her photo and a statement.

“My name is Debra Yepa-Pappan,” the statement reads. “I’m Jemez and Korean, an artist, and the Native Community Engagement Coordinator at the Field Museum. Since I live in Chicago, it’s important to me to take my daughter home to Jemez. When she participates in ceremony, she connects our family, our culture, to the future. I hope that Pueblo people visiting this exhibit find a home away from home and can connect with our Ancestors.”

She said she hopes to reach visitors with the stories.

“Corn is an important food source for us,” Yepa-Pappan told ICT. “Pueblo women have used stones for grinding corn since time immemorial, and some still do. My grandmother used grinding stones, but my aunt uses a hand-crank grinder instead. The Jemez tamales she makes with coarse cornmeal have this crispy outer shell, with red chili and beef on the inside — they’re so good.”

The Chaco Canyon exhibit was important for her, she said.

“As the only Pueblo person on staff for “Native Truths,’ it was important for me to be involved with the story about Chaco Canyon,” she said. “It was an opportunity for me to be able to represent Jemez people.”

‘An immersive experience’

Yepa-Pappan takes her leadership role at the museum very seriously.

“First and foremost, my priority is Native people,” she said. “In my work as community engagement coordinator at the Field Museum, I want to make sure that Native people always have access, have access to collections, always feel welcome, and feel comfortable. I want to give Native visitors a positive experience when they come to visit.”

She also worked closely with the collaborators who helped shape the redesign of the Native hall.

“Having a Native person in the role of community engagement provided that level of comfort and trust for many of our collaborators,” she said. “I always assured them that I was here to support them, however my support was needed.”

She also tapped the network of people she built as a visual artist with nearly two decades in the Native art scene, and in eight years with the American Indian Education program in the Chicago Public Schools.

“I had built a vast network which includes Native artists and many others across Indian Country,” she said. “My network became a resource for us to find collaborators to include, and my contacts were helpful in connecting us to people we wanted to work with who we may not have known personally.”

A handmade canoe is among the items on display at the Field Museum's new permanent exhibition, "Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories," which opened May 2022 in Chicago. The canoe was made from a single piece of elm bark in 2015 in a community effort that included Jijak Youth Camp participants from  Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians. (Photo by Dan Ninham for ICT)

Education was a key component, she said.

“Because of limited cultural awareness, I felt I spent a lot of time educating others around the museum and specifically those working on the project,” she said. “Being closely involved, I had a literal seat at the table. I felt I had to take on the responsibility to represent the many Native people and communities I engaged with and had conversations with. Those conversations, which aligned with my own way of knowing, were helpful in motivating me to both advocate for what is important to Native people and to challenge the colonial practices of the museum.”

She continued, “My work has always been about advocating for Native people, and making sure we have presence and accurate representations, particularly in these institutions that were not made for us.”

Core Indigenous values come into the picture in and out of the museum for Yepa-Pappan.

“I believe in integrity,” she said. “I was taught to be honest and treat all people with respect. Hospitality and generosity are so important in both Korean and Pueblo cultures, so I strive to take the best care of everyone I host here.”

The results speak for themselves.

“I like to say I work for Native people at the museum,” she said. “I feel that by working so closely with our collaborators, we've been able to create an immersive experience, where visitors will learn from Native people, not just about us. ‘Native Truths’ is rich with our knowledge, our histories, our experiences, our contemporaneity, and our futures.”

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